The Football Association’s Covid-19 cost-cutting strategy dismantles key strands of its celebrated England DNA coach education programme and abandons its commitment to the small-sided format of futsal hailed by Gareth Southgate as a “great game and development tool” to help create the next generation of players, according to leaked documents seen by the Guardian.
Grassroots football, long underfunded and hobbled by an alarming dearth of facilities, also faces a reduction in funding of £22m a season over four years.
The decision to “remove all futsal national teams and staff”, revealed in a document sent to the FA’s technical department, also in effect abandons the commitment to create a women’s national team.
Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, described futsal as a “key part in our strategy to grow the women’s and girls’ game” in 2018, when the sport was finally accepted as one of the FA’s core pillars in the National Game Strategy. The six-year plan, called “Fast Forward with Futsal”, vowed to create a women’s team for the Uefa Women’s 2021 European Championship.
The decision to scrap the men’s senior futsal team and under-19 and under-23 teams comes as the seniors await a postponed play-off against North Macedonia in the 2022 European Championship qualifiers and is likely to be met with concern in Uefa. The partially sighted futsal team is the only one retained.
Futsal, the five-a-side indoor game born in South America in the 1930s, is widely recognised as essential to youth football development in nations such as Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Russia and Iran, where it is the dominant game in schools and a professional sport in its own right.
England’s men’s senior futsal team was founded in 2003 and the game has grown markedly at the grassroots level in recent years, with youth teams increasingly playing it indoors in winter breaks. The men’s and women’s national league structure was overhauled in 2018, with the introduction of a National Futsal Series.
Dozens of futsal clubs, many with thriving academies, will be plunged into uncertainty. The total FA funding for the sport will fall from £900,000 a year to £125,000 to meet minimum contractual obligations in the youth game under a three-year sponsorship deal with Pokémon.
Southgate, who has taken a 30% pay cut along with other FA executives, declared his support for futsal at the time of the 2018 strategy launch. The sport is lauded by many of the best footballers in the world, from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to Brazil’s Neymar and Philippe Coutinho and Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne.
The internal Covid cuts document says the teams are being axed because futsal has only a “limited link” to the ambition to win a major 11-a-side tournament first cited by the incoming chairman Greg Dyke in 2013.
A senior FA coaching tutor, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Guardian: “It’s astonishing that futsal is being dropped after the past 10 years of the FA saying this is the future and that it was [the game] we’re looking to use for kids to get the techniques and tactics of the DNA.”
An FA spokesperson said: “We continue to review our overall Futsal strategy in light of the significant financial challenges associated with Covid-19 and will provide a further update in due course.”In recent weeks, dozens of coach educators, tutors and other staff based at St George’s Park have departed at the end of the redundancy consultation process as the FA seeks to cut 82 roles and leave 42 more vacancies unfilled.
The coach mentor programme, set up in 2015 to support volunteer coaches in understanding and applying the ethos of the England DNA to the grassroots youth game, was scrapped in July, with 300 part-time mentors and eight full-time staff losing their roles. The FA declared in June it wanted to save £300m over four seasons in response to the downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Its chief executive, Mark Bullingham, admitted to a shrinking of the FA’s responsibilities as it made “tough choices” to account for the collapse in income from sources such as £35m a year in Wembley stadium hospitality.
A second document seen by the Guardian outlining the National Game budget for the 2020-21 season details the total reduction of £75m in funding, including the £22m grassroots cuts, £22m to the professional game and £31m a year on other areas.
The scale and depth of the cuts jeopardise the pursuit of the so-called England DNA, hailed as a “golden thread” of technical and tactical skill running from grassroots to the England senior teams when introduced by Les Reed’s predecessor as technical director, Dan Ashworth, in 2014. The joined-up approach is seen as key to the recent success of the England youth teams.
Grassroots football is expected to be hit hard. The network of expert coach developers assigned to every county FA, supported by tutors and mentors offering in-situ support on the ground, has been dismantled. The futsal coaching courses have been axed and the football introductory Level 1 course has gone online only. A new, shorter “Playmaker” course, also online only, is designed for coach volunteers.
The FA is expected to announce plans for a slimmed-down replacement coach education structure shortly.
The FA coaching course tutor, who has experience in academies, said the cuts had caused widespread frustration at the “cull of knowledge and expertise” and threatened the future of the game.